A tea and a cake with Em, our brilliant content editor

In which our newest writer (Marko Dorić) sits down with our longest-serving one

There’s a Pythonesque sketch by standup comedian Eddie Izzard called “Cake or Death?” in which he makes the case that you can’t have extreme points of view in the Church of England. You never hear anyone saying “You must have tea and cake with a vicar or you’ll die!” There’s a reason The Spanish Inquisition didn’t happen in England – the incendiary language of fire and brimstone isn’t commonly found in the pulpits this side of the channel.

So, what does this have to do with the interview?

Well, my British inquisitor is our brilliant content editor, Em Kuntze. When I started here, I was prepared for the fact that my writing might need some refinement, but when she reviewed my first ever article for Content Insights (about taking empathy lessons from social media), the text was bleeding with editing suggestions. I mean, it was drenched in red, just like she promised. But I didn’t waver because she was incredibly delightful and attentive about it. Her surgical editorial work is completely contradicted by her bubbly personality. That is why I was thrilled to have tea and cake with Em instead of opting for my premature professional death.

All comedy aside, I must say, Em is a well of information. What exactly did we talk about? I asked her to show me the ropes at Content Insights, share her experiences in the journalism industry, shed some light on the way online news is being consumed and, ultimately, what the future has in store for the world of publishing. And, boy, she didn’t cut back. It was an eye-opening conversation with a lot of takeaways.

Bring out the virtual tea and cake!

Introductory sip: what’s a British lady like you doing with a loud bunch like us? How did you wind up with Content Insights?

(laughs) Well, I’m equally loud and I talk a lot so I feel quite at home. How did I end up there? It was actually through one of my really good friends who used to run content at Content Insights right back in the beginning before the blog was even up and running. He was looking for some extra writers to come on board and at the time I had just finished up maternity leave, so it was perfect timing. I started writing content again and everything went on from there. It’s a niche that suits me really really well. That’s how I started – it was a complete chance and serendipity.

Yes, I did notice when I was going through the blog sections on the Content Insights website that the bulk of the first articles were authored by you.

Yeah, you’re right: I think it was November or December 2015. The first article we ever put on the blog was the interview with Dejan about how the company started. So yes, in retrospect, I’ve been here for quite a long time. I was a part of the team when it was still very, very small.

Can you tell me the difference between then and now? How has the mission of Content Insights changed as the years have passed?

When we started, it was a different time.

From an industry perspective, we were struggling with issues around monetization, as evidenced by the reliance on clicks and volume in many newsrooms. In the UK, for example, we have a very strong tabloid culture in newspapers so it was a case of: how do you keep going as a newspaper if you are relying on ad revenues? The answer then was that you’d get the tabloids that would go in for those articles that would generate really high volumes of traffic and multiple clicks. There were examples of newspapers feeling it was more important to be first than to be right in order to get those clicks, and then having to backtrack when it transpired they’d been too hasty.

If you are a journalist, all this is incredibly unsatisfying because you are chasing clicks and you are not matching it with content that is actually valuable – and I really think most journalists have a sense of purpose that goes beyond watching a real-time analytics board to see if their article’s gaining traction…

Socially too, we were having a lot of problems with issues of fake news – and I mean both the air quotes type and the genuine misinformation – and filter bubbles. 2015 was that strange year when Donald Trump had been nominated for the Republican primary in the States. The repercussions for journalism were quite interesting because the profession felt increasingly under fire. So, when we started on the blog, although that political issue wasn’t what we were talking about, I think everybody was quite aware that journalists were facing a lot of challenges.

At the heart of all this was the fact that newsrooms were struggling. Many were closing, so the real issue was: how do these newsrooms keep going? If you’re reliance on ads and they want to see volume, how do you balance that with a focus on quality too?

Yes, I think we can all understand how tedious it is to sacrifice quality for quantity. You touched then on the rise of analytics in the newsrooms – how is the data-informed approach changing the modern-day publishing landscape?

When we started this transition to digital, really, we knew very little about reading habits of our online audiences. If you go back to the era of print, people didn’t know that then either, but you had an indicator of success by volume: you knew how many newspapers were being sold, but not exactly how the content within the newspaper was being consumed. That was really a fuzzy time, analytics-wise. Short of looking over the shoulder at somebody reading something, you’re always going to find that there’s a difference between what people say they’ve read and what they actually have read.

But when we moved to digital, we saw a load of different changes happening within the publishing sector. First, of course, you no longer have a product that is sold by itself as a package of articles. From an editorial standpoint, you don’t measure success by issue sales.

You also no longer have the same kind of approach with the newspaper where you have something above the fold. Knowing what is above the fold and below the fold is not quite as obvious, that the whole way that editors have operated in newsrooms has changed – you’ve gone from having this whole organized package to having sections, to having articles, to having particular journalists who are producing content for a particular following. Each piece of content matters in its own right now.

And of course, to get back to your question, the main difference is that we’ve seen an evolution in available data and analytics.. Back in those early days (which wasn’t really that long ago!), you could track page views, you could track interactions. So if you have got a list of articles and list of those likes and page views, you can start to gauge what stuff is being read and what isn’t. But, those are a very primitive kind of metrics and although it was eye-opening to have at least some kind of understanding about what was happening online, you don’t have to think for too long before you realize there are significant problems relying on metrics which are so vague.

But what’s happened is we’ve got more sophisticated about gathering that information. We are able to get a more nuanced understanding of how people are reading and how we can best serve the publishers. The technology has finally caught up, and editorial analytics – at least editorial analytics here at CI – have been designed to serve newsrooms, not ad agencies.

This is why I think it’s so great that Content Insights is such a mission-driven company. We are helping publishers to really get to grips with the way the readers consume news content online. The data-informed approach is very interesting because it can mean a whole slew of different things, but really, at the core of it, it is just connecting the publishers with readers’ true behavior.

One thing that pops to mind is that people – millennials in particular – prefer visual content over any other format. How do you think this prospect affects written content and its quality?

Millennials are a tricky one, only because I think it’s very easy to ascribe a whole set of behaviors to an age group – and I don’t think that necessarily follows. Obviously, millennials have a different relationship with the news to their parents, just because we’ve grown up with this technology at our fingertips. I say we, but technically, I’m really not a millennial, although I share many of the traits. I’m a geriatric millennial. (laughs)

The way that this age group differs from before is we are more tech-savvy, we expect things to come in different formats. Yes, there is an attraction to visual content, but I think more than that, there is an attraction to decent content. There have been a lot of studies that have shown millennials are engaged with stuff as long as it’s good!

Certainly, on the whole, attention spans have decreased. We all do it, you know – scrolling through mobile phone feeds, just infinite scrolling. But really, when content is good, sometimes you will be looking at it through a visual medium, but sometimes you will be reading it through a written medium – and sometimes it is a combination of both. I spent more than twenty minutes engrossed in an investigative piece about the scandal at a Catholic children’s home not long back. I’d stumbled upon it on Twitter and though it’s not something I’d necessarily read, once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. If the storytelling is good, attention isn’t an issue.

What I think we need to pay attention to with millennials and the post-millennial generation is that there can be no fluff. It needs to be connected and it needs to be well-considered. There is a guy from VG in Norway, Johnathan Falk Systad – Miloš did a Q&A with him a while back – and his main contention is that things like Snapchat or Instagram may not be here in 5 or 10 years, so while you shouldn’t focus your long-term planning on a platform, you can take lessons about how content resonates with audiences from it. The platform itself is not as important as the messaging and the key findings – and that is, you have to serve the right content to the right people at the right time. I think all the publishers who are being successful right now understand that.

And the thing which I find very interesting is something that Vivian Schiller, a renowned journalist, said last year: “We need to be finding content which serves people in these micro-moments.” There’s been a lot of studies about when people access online news on their phones – and it is when they are waiting for the bus, when they are on the loo when they are making dinner… You know, it is these tiny pockets of 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes tops when they are looking for something to fill the time.

Whether that behavior will change, I don’t know, but right now that’s what we need to be focusing on: how do we deliver quality content to the right people at the right time in the right format? So it’s not quite answering your question, but that’s what I think the mission is.

Data science is dubbed “the sexiest job in the 21st century” by Harvard Business Review. With such expansion of AI, big data, and machine learning (all hail our AI overlords), what do you think the future has in store for the world of publishing?

Wow, that’s a massive question. I think it is related to your earlier question about being a data-informed newsroom. AI is a part of that machine – it’s already being used very well in a number of newsrooms. And it is easy to paint a picture that it’s making journalists a bit hysterical that jobs are going to be lost. While that might be the case, I take a more optimistic, constructive view. I think where it’s being used really well at the moment is in hyper-specialized content and in local content as a way to build trust between newsrooms and audiences.

What AI can do – something which I find really fascinating – is authoring articles that don’t need authors. And these are articles about local elections or local sports events. There is an example of MittMedia in Sweden: they have a whole section of their website which authors articles about local real-estate prices and fluctuations using machine learning. When somebody buys a house, there’s an article that can be generated that says: ”Oh, so-and-so bought a house, and how much it went for, and what the neighborhood was like and da da da…”

Now, while certainly as a British person in this post-GDPR world I get a bit twitchy, there are lessons here which can be extrapolated and applied somewhere else. So I think AI should slot into newsrooms and places where the analysis that journalists can bring to news articles isn’t needed when it is that reportage of information.

It will be interesting to see how it develops in the next few years. Right now I see things, particularly in local elections (we’ve just had European elections here), being able to connect a local readership to very hyper-localized election results. I think it does a lot to build reader trust. That relationship is interesting to me – how hyper-local news authored by AI can enable people to find information that’s very close to them. If readers see that they can find themselves and their communities in their local press, it builds confidence that those newsrooms can represent them.

I’ve read that AI is able to contextualize news only if you feed it parameters, but it can never be creative on its own. It is the only human component which the machines cannot fully replicate – creativity. However, the advantage is that it can automate reports, reformat articles, content translation, trends, predictions, etc.

Well, yes, as you say, I think it is very much a part of the newsroom, a tool in the newsroom. I mean, this isn’t a revolutionary idea, but I think it’s best to use AI as you would use an analytics suite. It’s a part of the research toolkit. Still, it is such a huge field. Who knows where it will go? But you are absolutely right, like any other data article, it’s only going to be as good as the parameters you set. If newsrooms are open for that, then bring it!

Last tea sip: do you have a word of advice for us content writers out there?

I think it is really simple. You have to know who your readers are. And that’s it. The newsrooms that excite me at the minute are the ones who have a very clear sense of who is reading their content. Particularly those local newsrooms. There is one in the UK called Bristol Cable, which is a very, very local news site, and has an organizational structure similar to a co-op. They know exactly who their readership is and as a result, they are not only able to generate stories themselves but also to find out what kind of stories they should be writing. If you are in content marketing, it is exactly the same. You just need to know who you are writing for.

Like we said – brilliant.

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